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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia (Fourth of Ten Parts)

 Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia

What Price Affirmative Action?

M. Bakri Musa


[Presented at the Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC), Stanford University, Palo Alto, Ca, April 28, 2003, chaired by Prof. Don Emmerson. Conditions have only worsened since.]



Fourth of Ten Parts:  The New Economic Policy (NEP) Phase – 1971-81.


The May 1969 race riots forced deep soul searching among Malaysians and resulted in the New Economic Policy (NEP). Among its many provisions were rigid quotas in university admissions and elsewhere. As per NEP, public institutions had to reflect the community that supports them. In addition to quotas, universities were forced to create outreach programs – matrikulasi – where bright disadvantaged rural students interested in the sciences could spend their last two (in some cases one) years of their high school on university campuses and be taught by their lecturers. The program was so successful that it was expanded quickly.


            Matrikulasi’s success was also its undoing. Its highly sought slots were soon filled with children of ministers and doctors instead of villagers and fishermen, making a mockery of its initial outreach commitment.


            In addition to matrikulasi, the government vastly expanded its academic magnet boarding schools, again targeting Malay students. While during my school years there were only two such schools, one for boys, the other for girls. That soon expanded to over a hundred. As before, admissions were strictly on merit. Since it was narrowly defined, based only on test scores, those schools favored Malays from the upper socioeconomic class, again negating their earlier outreach mission. That situation has only gotten worse today.


Both matrikulasi and residential schools are expensive. They suck resources away from the rest of the system. Another common lament from teachers, especially those of rural schools, was that deprived of their brightest students now shunted to these residential schools, the sparks in their classes were gone, and with that, the joy of teaching for the teachers and the excitement of learning for the students.


The government also expanded higher education by setting up three new universities. That reduced the bottleneck for the increasing number of matriculating students. Precisely because of this concomitant expansion of opportunities, the discriminatory impact of affirmative action was softened. Few felt threatened with the denial of opportunities, and with that, minimal resentments or protests. Further, it was obvious to all that the previous gross inequities were inherently unfair and could not be the basis for a stable society. A more practical reason was that the government threatened to use its repressive Internal Security Act to bludgeon anyone who dared protest.


The impact of quotas and expanded opportunities was dramatic. It greatly reduced the perception as well as reality of the disparity. This was achieved in a remarkably short time. In terms of scope and impact, I would put Malaysia’s affirmative action program during its first decade comparable to America’s immediate post-war GI Bill.


Perception unless supported by reality is illusion. An anecdote will dramatically illustrate the impact of these changes.


In 1969 just after the race riot, I was visiting a school in my old village during a break after my graduation. I gave a talk on careers in medicine. Following my talk a shy young Malay girl gingerly approached me. She had patiently waited until everyone had left. She wanted to know whether in my dissections of the brains of blacks and whites, did I notice any difference? I was flabbergasted by the innocent inquiry and immediately sensed the terrible burden on this young girl’s mind.


Startled and unable to give an immediate coherent answer, I responded with a question of my own. “Why do you ask?”


Her answer was even more fascinating. She had previously posed that same question to another doctor and of course was told that there were no differences between the brains of the various races. However, she did not believe him because he was a local graduate and thus had dissected the brains of only Malays, Chinese, and Indians. Since they were all Asian, he would not have been able to detect subtle differences. Since I was trained in Canada and had studied the brains of blacks and whites where presumably the differences would be that much more apparent, my answer would be more accurate. Astute reasoning!


Seven years later I returned to that same school, this time as a surgeon, and again gave a talk on careers. The first question asked of me was, “How much do you make?”


That was followed quickly on whether brain surgeons make more money than general surgeons. When I replied “Yes!” to that second easy query, this young man immediately retorted that he wanted to be a brain surgeon and not “just a general surgeon!”


Although those were all said in gest with the class responding with riotous laughter, I could not believe the sea change I was witnessing. These were children of villagers and rubber tappers. If I were to mention to them that their predecessors only a few years earlier were wondering whether they were even capable intellectually of pursuing the sciences, these youngsters would have given me a stunned look of disbelief, and rightly so.


Quotas and preferential treatments, together with vastly expanded opportunities, greatly reduced the gross inequities in education. The NEP succeeded with minimal dilution of quality and evoked minimal protest. And the government again emphasized the role of education in fostering a common Malaysian identity.


Next:  Fifth of Ten Parts:  Nationalistic Phase, 1981-1990


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